Monday, January 19, 2009

Crossroads (Full Story)

He left the BMW sitting beneath a crooked street lamp next to an ancient pump, the keys dangling from the ignition. The attendant smiled a patient smile and asked how much.

“Just fill it up,” he said, with a wave of his hand. He had no intention of paying the man, or using the fuel that would fill his empty tank. He had somewhere else to be, and he had no desire to return to his old life. He’d forget the beemer and buy himself a Bentley by morning.

The crossroads are a place where devils dance in the moonlight. Where souls are traded like stocks on Wall Street. A place where a person can forget who he was and the things that he’s done, if only he’s willing to pay.

He smoothed down the front of his collared shirt and loosened his tie. Nothing was too costly for Jason Turner. This, he decided, was what had to be done. A practical measure. A bump in the road to success.

He stood in the center of Cropsy and Manson, two dirt roads that lead to nowhere and the sight of far too many fatal car accidents. Someone should put a stop sign here, he thought. But there would be no stop sign, no traffic signal. Too many souls would be saved. Not many made the kind of deal Jason was willing to make and the crossroads demons had to meet their quota one way or another.

A soul like Jason’s wasn’t ideal, he knew that. They’d want someone pure, someone virtuous. Someone who didn’t already have one polished loafer in the devil’s door. He’d need more than just his weathered soul if he wanted to strike up a bargain.

From the pocket of his trousers, Jason removed a small leather bag he’d bought at a charm shop from a gypsy woman. The bag smelled like cat piss and dirt, but she’d assured him it would do the trick. He dug a small hole with the toe of his shoe, tossed the bag inside, and stamped the dirt back into place. With fisted hands and a rigid back, he waited.

Nothing happened. He was duped, he knew it. Something heavy settled in his stomach. He doubled over, heaving into the dead grass along the side of the road. He was out of options. He needed this. He needed to enlist the help of hell’s best businessmen. Without the deal, Jason was done.

Maybe the gypsy woman had forgotten to mention something. Some key that would unlock the gates of hell and grant him an easy way out. “Bury it,” she’d hissed at him. “Bury it, and face your demon.” She’d gripped his hands so tightly Jason could still feel the bite of her arthritic boney fingers. He was ready to face the demon, any demon. If only one would show.

An eighteen wheeler sped down Crospy leaving Jason just enough time to jump back. When the truck had gone, and the dust settled, the demon stood before him. It wasn’t what he’d expected. It had no horns. No forked tongue or spaded tail. No pitchfork like a cartoon devil. It had eyes, not red, but as green as his own. And skin the color of milk with a touch of honey. 

And a face Jason Turner could never forget.

The demon wore his sister’s face. There was no mistaking her crooked smile nor could he miss the small scar on her chin.

“No,” he said and retreated one small step. A feint at what he actually wanted to do in that moment.

He’d been prepared to go toe to toe with something inhuman, with something grotesque and terrible. He’d never seen a demon before tonight, but he’d had it on good authority that they weren’t that easy to look upon. Of course, he wasn’t finding it easy to look upon his sister, either.

The demon cocked its head to the side regarding him through amused eyes. “No? C’mon, Jacey. Is that any way to greet me after so long.”

The pain in his stomach writhed again. “You can’t be here,” he said, gritting his teeth across his words.

“I’m afraid I can,” was her response.

For a quiet moment, Jason watched the demon, his sister. He had come here to change his life. He’d come looking for the means to forget the person he’d been in all the years before this one and be better. There was irony in it, to be sure; selling your soul in order to convince yourself you have one. That was the level to which Jason had fallen. Only a demon could raise him up again.

But his sister hadn’t suffered from his less desirable traits. She had been kind and loving and good. The sort of person who’d give the coat on her back if she saw someone in need. The sort of person who made sacrifices for others. Jason had never been that good or selfless. He was the sort of person who chastised her for confusing recklessness with kindness. He was the sort of person who summoned demons at crossroads. Not her. She couldn’t be here.

A trick, he thought, that’s all this is. “Why are you using her face?”

Slow snaking breezes lifted the dust around her feet. It billowed around her, obscuring her feet in dull clouds. Moonlight cast pallor over everything, greying even her vibrant skin. And all around them, beetles snapped and clattered from the tall, dying grasses.

“Always so good with denial.” The demon with his sister’s face said sadly.

Lifting her hand before her, she opened her fingers to reveal a small leather bag. Not his, he realized. This one was darker, the drawstring at the top adorned with beads that glittered green and pink in the moonlight. Its strap was long and coiled around her wrist many times. At the edge of those coils her skin was pinched and pink. Even at a distance, Jason could see the scar from where it had dug into her skin.

He didn’t want to recognize it and he didn’t know what it meant that he did, but the beads on the bag were distinct. They were the beads from a necklace he’d given her on her seventeenth birthday when he’d been barely fifteen. It hadn’t been in their budget, but he’d taken extra work at the butcher for a month to afford it. That was before he’d discovered easier, more practical ways of affording the finer things in life.

“Jacey.” Her hand closed again on the little bag, clutching. Her fingers flushed white and Jason remembered how they twisted in the bed sheets at the end of another sleepless night. Her skin had lost its blush of honey so quickly and no one understood how or why such a healthy girl had grown so suddenly ill. Exceptionally tragic given her brother’s concurrent recovery from a fall that should have left him immobilized if not dead. “Jacey, why are you here?”

Before she appeared, he’d known the answer to that. If the demon that answered his call had born any other face he’d have said, “My soul for health and wealth.” Now, though, it wasn’t so simple.

“I’m here to make a deal.” Jason said, finding a small piece of resolve to stand on. He cleared his throat and smoothed his shirt before he continued. “I’m here to bargain for your soul.”

Meredith looked at him for a long, long time. Her head tilted slightly to the right, her face revealing nothing. The breezes twisting around her stopped, and everything went still. Too still.

Jason felt his certainty waver. The selfish part of him wanted to dig up his bag and run. Not out of fear, but from the shame. She’d always been good at this. Holding back, using her silence to make him speak. He felt fifteen again as he asked the question he didn’t want to hear the answer to. “What did you do, Mere?”

At this, her eyes turned kind. For the first time since she’d appeared, she looked like Meredith, and not some demon hiding behind her face. “I promised I’d always look out for you, didn’t I?”

“Not like this.” The sickness that had started in Jason’s stomach reached out for the rest of his body. Anger like liquid fire shot through his veins. He wanted to climb into hell and take down whatever demon had convinced his sweet, selfless sister to give up her soul. She didn’t deserve hell. Especially not for him. “You should’ve let me die.”

Meredith nodded. “Maybe I could’ve, if you were dying, but you weren’t.”

“I don’t understand. If I wasn’t dying, then why?”

“Would you have rather been a quadriplegic for the rest of your life? I couldn’t stand it, my baby brother, forever strapped into a chair, all because I was late picking him up.”

Jason thought back to the accident. So much of it was missing from his memory. He didn’t know why he’d been on the roof of the school that day, or how he’d managed to fall off. And since it was after school hours, no one had seen him but the janitor that found him splattered on the ground and called 911. He didn’t even know he’d been waiting for his sister. “No that’s…” He wanted to say that wasn’t true, but suddenly truth seemed like a slippery thing. Instead he told her what he knew. “That wasn’t worth your soul.”

Meredith shrugged. “What’s done is done.”

Jason walked toward her. The closer he got, the more he could feel the heat leaking from her in waves. It reminded him that she was here with him, but her soul was down there burning. He cupped his hand around the bag dangling from her wrist. It was heavy. Too heavy for someone as frail as Meredith to hold. The longer he held it, the more he realized he wasn’t feeling weight, he was feeling pull. The bag was her anchor. It kept her tied to hell even when she was out in the human world. It only increased his determination. He held his gaze steady on hers. “I can fix this.”

“Don’t.” She whispered.

“My soul for yours.” He said, and the bag he held in his hand began to glow.

They both studied it for a few moments before Meredith took a deep breath. “Are you sure? Your soul for my freedom?”

Jason knew he should be feeling fear, or at least sadness, but all he felt was relief. He would be redeemed. His life, all the terrible things he’d done since his sister died would be erased. Meredith would make the world a better place then he ever could’ve. He was positive, and he made his voice show it. “My soul for your freedom.”

A blast of heat burst at them from the ground, shooting Meredith’s hair straight up into the air. For a moment Jason thought she looked like she was falling. And then he realized the sensation was his. His feet stayed rooted to the ground, but he felt his soul detach and drop down, farther and farther until it touched flame. He squeezed his eyes shut in agony, but behind his lids he saw a landscape of fire and torture so horrific it made the burning of his soul feel like a slight itch.

“Jacey, open up.” Meredith teased. She sounded much more vibrant and alive than she had moments before.

Jason opened his eyes, grateful that at least his sister was saved.

Meredith pulled her bag free wrist away from Jason’s hand and grinned as he panted and tried to catch his breath. “Thanks, kid,” she said, in voice not at all her own.

As Jason watched, pale, pretty, teenaged Meredith morphed into a gorgeous, golden-skinned, raven-haired woman of about thirty. Without the headscarf and the shabby clothes and the wrinkles, it took him a moment to recognize the gypsy woman who’d told him how to summon the demon.

Jason glanced down at the heavy bag that now dangled from his wrist and could hardly speak. “Where’s Meredith?”

The painfully attractive woman threw her head back and laughed. “Hell if I know, kid.” she ruffled his hair as she walked past him, still grinning. “Thanks for the trade.”

Photo found via google images, original author unknown.

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